Less than two months left and it’s off to Europe I go! Before long, cycling will be my main form of transportation as I village-hop from Greece to Spain through all manners of landscapes, weather and cultures. The distances won’t be short, nor will the roads be compromising. But it’s going to be awesome. 🙂
A few weeks ago, with a mind full of imaginings of endless miles of pedaling along small coastal highways, winding mountain roads and beautiful tree-covered lanes in Europe, I came to the conclusion that it was time to work out some important details: Am I packing the right stuff? Will my rack/pannier setup be suitable for what I’ll be doing? Will the bike be ready? Will I be ready?
My friend Amber had some time off for the Christmas holidays, so we came up with a plan. I’d find a substitute teacher to cover for me at work, and together we would take off for a multi-day cycling tour around Taiwan. The weather is still somewhat mild these days – a lot like the weather I’ll be landing in when I arrive in Athens in a few weeks. What better way to put myself, and my gear, to the test!
And yet, therein lay the first hiccup, because despite my best efforts, my bike could not be ready in time for the trip. Cable guides needed to be added to the custom-designed frame before it could be properly assembled, and it just couldn’t be done before our departure date. So we borrowed another friend’s fancy road bike, made a few adjustments, swapped some components, put a rear rack on it, strapped on my bright red Axiom waterproof panniers and on Boxing Day afternoon, we hit the road.
The wind was howling when we finally left Hsinchu City on the northwest coast and headed for the northern tip of the island. Progress was slow as we hunkered down and plowed into the strong headwind, moving at a frustratingly low speed of 8km/hr through grey landscapes of windmills, factories and concrete overpasses. Without a patch of grass in sight, we spent our first night in a dingy love motel in Taiyuan, hopeful that the days to come would be better.
After changing a tube that had deflated while we slept, we set off for day 2, and soon we found what we’d been looking forward to. When we’d made it past that invisible line in Shimen that separates the west from the east, everything changed. The wind became our ally, the roads opened up, the heavy traffic disappeared, the colour palette of our surroundings got brighter… Yes. This is what we’d come out here to see.
The people we met along the way were lovely, and for the most part, the weather was surprisingly mild. We only had one day of riding in the rain, really, (on the fifth day, in the valley between Hualien and Ruisui), which meant that we could camp comfortably for the majority of our trip. The first night we slept outdoors it was outside a police station in Jinshan, just north of Keelung, where we were given access to water, electricity and a warm shower.
The next night we set up on the front lawn of a large beach-side café just north of Toucheng. It was by no means an official campsite, but luckily no one saw it necessary to give us any trouble about it, a testament to the relaxed attitude of Taiwanese people in these parts, for which we were very grateful.
The journey wasn’t always a blissful and joyous ride, however. The expensive saddle I’d purchased to provide me with a comfortable ride was doing anything but that; by the end of the second day it was hard to stay seated more than two or three minutes at a time without lifting my butt off my saddle to give myself a few precious seconds of relief. My fancy road bike was also a bit of a problem; it was great on level ground, but deprived of granny gears, I was soon burned out from having to muscle my way up the many hills that make up much of the Taiwanese landscape. To top it all off, by the end of the third day, we had to pull over to the side of the road yet again, this time in a cemetery, to work on our third flat tire on the same wheel.
It’s at times like these that it’s a bit hard to keep spirits up, but fortunately, such hardships are always ephemeral. Sure enough, we eventually managed to reach the train station in Suao, where we boarded a train (with a fourth flat tire) to by-pass the typhoon-damaged highway that we would have otherwise cycled along to get down to Hualien. That night we were able to go to a proper bike shop in Hualien, where we all scratched our heads for a while, trying to figure out the exact cause of our troubles, before deciding to just go ahead and replace everything, just to be safe.
Having fallen behind schedule, we decided to hop on another train at the end of our fifth day to cover some of the distance that still separated us from our New Year’s Eve destination: the warm and popular beaches of Kenting in the south of Taiwan. We boarded in Ruisui (after a good soak in a hot spring to melt away the chill that had set in during our rainy ride down the 193) and reached Taidong at 10:30pm. From there we would get on an early morning train the next day and travel to Fangliao, from where we would pedal south into Kenting with time to spare before the countdown.
It soon became clear that we would have no luck finding a cheap hotel in Taidong that night. It was a long holiday weekend, and all reasonably priced accommodations had long ago been spoken for. But before we could even start looking for a dry, sheltered spot to set up our tent, an offer was made that neither of us could turn down…
That night, we slept in warmth and comfort in the train station’s baggage depot. We were well taken care of too: HBO on the tube, a single bed in a small room behind the attendant’s office where we could lay out our sleeping bags, and lots of space for us to spread out our wet gear to dry. We were even brought steamed buns and milk tea in the morning… Taiwanese hospitality is something else, I tell ya.
The rest of the trip was lovely (and flat tire free). We made it to Kenting in time to welcome the New Year with friends, and we took it easy with them the next day. On January 2nd, while everyone else was back at work, Amber and I cycled around the south end of the island and swung back up on the gorgeous east coast to get to Jialesui, where we enjoyed a lazy day in a café before coming back for a third and final night of camping in Kenting. Having no interest in ending our cycling trip riding in cold rain, or going up the relatively gloomy west coast of the island, we decided to quit while we were ahead; we rode back up to Fangliao, got on a train, and headed home.
– I packed pretty well. I used every item I brought at least once. There are a few adjustments I need to make, but I’m well on my way.
-Investing in a good tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag was a very good idea.
-I still have a lot to learn before I can be self-sufficient regarding maintaining and repairing my bike.
-I need a new saddle!!
Only a few weeks to make sure that my touring bike is ready to go, that I have everything I need, and that I know how to take care of it all when it’s just me out there. Here’s to getting everything sorted before March 1st!